War of the Words

Dallas' Scrabble geeks bring in the heavy artillery -- J, X, and Z -- for big bucks and glory

For all those years of battle, one war story stands out. The Scrabble board was tight, so tight. But after 10 minutes of tournament play, Michael Chitwood had his opponent right where he wanted her: stuck and grasping for a place to go.

No matter that the gray-haired woman across the board looked harmless--a little like his grandma. No matter that they often exchanged friendly tips about the game. This was mortal combat. Chitwood had shut down the board by playing short words, effectively blocking off most of the high-scoring spaces available to his opponent.

For the 52-year-old Dallas resident, winning this game was essential--and that sweet little lady squinting at the board was in the way.

After Chitwood made his move, Grandma studied the board, measuring the spaces, arranging and rearranging the seven tiles on her rack. This was her arsenal: all she had left to foil a complete rout.

She stopped and pulled out four letters. She placed them on the lone double-word score near an S. The word began with a C. It ended with a T and an S. It was an extremely vulgar word--plural, no less--for a woman's private parts.

"14 points!" she said, slapping the chess clock to stop the time.
She didn't blush; she didn't apologize. She fished for some more tiles from her bag and awaited her next turn. Despite her brilliant move, she would ultimately lose. But Chitwood couldn't help but admire her brass.

So much for the quiet, civil game of wordy recluses. In competitive Scrabble, foul words, slang, and even racial epithets are permissible and often used--because many of them contain high-scoring letters. "It doesn't matter to us," says Chitwood, a paralegal in real life. "If you've got the letters to play, and it's the best play you've got, you do it."

It is not unheard of for minority players to use words that would, in any other circumstance, cause fights, Chitwood adds. There is none of the posturing or recrimination that the words normally evoke. In the realm of Scrabble, words have lost their power to harm. Their potency is measured solely in points.

"They are just words to us," Chitwood says. "To us, the words are the rules."

At a time when there's a special place for obsessives of any stripe--you can find clubs for cat fanciers, Hawaiian shirt collectors, and speakers of the mythical language Klingon--it is not surprising that Scrabble has acquired its own culture in Dallas. It is, by its members' own admission, a quirky, eclectic, eccentric society of word freaks. People talk in terms of "rack leaves" and "bingos." They know that "mm" is a word, as is "qat," and that having the letters AEDIRST on the seven-letter rack is cause for great rejoicing. (The letters can be used to form the word "aridest," worth an extra 50 points because it uses all seven letters--what's known as a "bingo.")

Chitwood met Grandma and the likes of her through Dallas' growing network of Scrabble clubs. The players bring their own boards to coffee shops and restaurant back rooms, trying out the latest strategies learned over the Internet or through one of several national Scrabble magazines. (Scrabble News, published by the National Scrabble Association of Greenport, New York, is one of the most popular.) Players are from all walks of life: nurses, truck drivers, marketing directors, technical writers. Their paths met in the criss-crossing tiles of a Scrabble board.

"When I moved back to Dallas [from Houston], I had no friends," Chitwood recalls. "Through Scrabble, I have made a wide circle of them. I have no regrets about knowing any of them."

Most of these Scrabble enthusiasts will never go beyond club-level play--perfectly satisfied to learn the 92 two-letter words, like "ut" and "oe" and "xu," judged acceptable by the official Scrabble dictionary, or many of the threes, like "gox" and "kaf" and "gae." But for those who elevate Scrabble from game to sport--sport in the same way that synchronized swimming or chess are sports--there is more to it than simply knowing what words can be made. There is strategy: how to play short words to keep the board tight; how to recognize words in jumbled letters; how to use computer programs to increase one's Scrabble lexicon.

And now, there's even money. This week, the biannual Scrabble National Championship has been going on in downtown Dallas at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. More than 400 people from throughout the country and the world were expected to compete for a top prize of $25,000. It is the highest purse ever offered for a Scrabble national title, according to John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association.

The money makes possible something relatively new to the 65-year-old game invented by an unemployed architect: the professional Scrabble player. "We are just now getting to the point where someone could make a living," Williams says.

And that's a good thing, he adds, when oft-ignorant professional athletes get all the money and attention. "It will show a new generation that you don't have to be in the NBA to be good at something and get paid well for it," Williams says earnestly.

As if Wheaties is going to pay the big bucks to put a Scrabble player on its cereal box.

Darrell Day of Dallas longs for a certain word--this perfect, eight-letter fantasy that brilliantly incorporates the premium Z tile. If placed in the right spot on the Scrabble board, it would bring joy beyond measure. The word is "isozymic."

"If I could play that word, I could die a happier man," he says with a laugh.

Day, 39, is an expert-level player ranked among the top 50 on the continent. His standing is based on a chesslike system of wins and losses with other players of similar caliber. A rating of 1,700 ranks you as an expert. The highest-rated player on the continent, Joe Edley, has a 2,077 rating. Day's is 1,953.

Day is a blend of Midwestern friendliness and a singular intensity that characterizes the game's top players. Yet he finds peace on the Scrabble board. He speaks of "flow," of seeing the board as a whole and being able to "feel" the game. He has near-automatic recall of more than 100,000 Scrabble words culled from a computer list given to him by a "computer wonk in Colorado."

"Isozymic" is his dream. That he doesn't know exactly what it means is irrelevant. ("It has something to do with enzymes," he says.) What matters is if the word is placed on two triple-word scores (a square that triples the value of the word and landing on two of them makes the word worth nine times its face value) with the Z falling on a triple-letter score, he would receive 396 points in one swoop. It is the Scrabble equivalent of picking the Trifecta.

"It's beyond great," Day says. "It's off the charts."
For Chris Cree, winning at Scrabble is better than hauling in hundreds of thousands at blackjack tables. Cree, 41, owns a wholesale forklift company in Dallas. Last year, he was one of 54 high-ranked Scrabble players invited to Las Vegas for the first-ever Scrabble Superstars Showdown, where they rummaged through their tile bags for a $50,000 top prize. Cree, whose rating is 1,871, also loves to gamble, and spent his time between Scrabble matches at the casino. He won big.

One turn at the blackjack table won him $177,000; another $62,000. During the four days of the Scrabble tournament, Cree scored $250,000 from gambling. But his luck didn't translate to the Scrabble board. Blackjack made him late for the first round, and he got beat soundly. He went back to the gaming tables and won more. A pattern emerged: Win at blackjack, lose at Scrabble. Soon the top Scrabble prize was out of reach.

A year later, when asked the obvious, Cree has no regrets. "The tournament--I would rather have won the tournament," he drawls. He'd trade the $250,000 for a purse five times smaller, and a title few people have ever heard of. Why? "Glory," Cree says. "You don't get much glory looking at a pit boss."

Scrabble is a deceptive game. Most every American has played it, and it seems simple: All one needs is to know how to spell and perform rudimentary math. The rest--the finesse--comes with time.

Why play; why obsess? Scrabble freaks come up with a variety of reasons. They love words; they love puzzles. But they all gain some measure of satisfaction from knowing that Scrabble is knowable, like chess, but always different, subject to the vagaries of the tile bag.

"It is more fascinating than chess," says Day, who was a childhood chess prodigy. "With chess, the possibilities gradually decrease, and the game gets boring. With Scrabble, the possibilities increase--they become more and more infinite. No two games are ever alike. It's like a snowflake."

In the hands of experts, the game takes on all the intrigue of chess. "It is almost a test of wills," Day says. "When you have this laser focus, it's being in a zone."

Day has a bag of Scrabble "Protiles" with him. Protiles, used by tournament players, are made of molded plastic; so unlike the wooden ones from an ordinary Scrabble set, you can't feel the letters. He pulls seven out of the bag--G, A, O, L, E, R, and C--and begins to shuffle them around.

"Hmm," he says. "It doesn't make a bingo. The closest I could get is 'gaoler.' I don't know what it means."

He pauses. He says he would probably play off "ego" to leave a balance between vowels and consonants on his rack. Better letter balance means a better chance for a "bingo"--which brings big points.

"It took me a year to really learn how to play with words," Day says. "It was like learning another language."

In contrast to chess, chance is a significant factor in Scrabble. You are at the mercy of the tiles you pick randomly from the bag on each turn. (The Scrabbler's lament is "Oh, the tiles were against me.") So it is possible for a novice Scrabbler, with a bit of knowledge, to beat an expert. "It's an infinitesimal chance, but it's still a chance," Michael Chitwood says. "In chess, a novice couldn't beat an expert if the expert was awake."

But the folks who run Scrabble tournaments have tamed chance. They have somehow calculated that if you play more than 12 games of Scrabble, chance is a factor in winning only 25 percent of the time, John Williams says. Chess clocks limit each match to 50 minutes, and the average scores range from 400 to 500 points. The highest score recorded in an official match was 770 points, according to Everything Scrabble, the players' bible written by Williams and two-time national champ Joe Edley.

Those who walk into the gatherings of a Dallas Scrabble club thinking their record of wins with friends and family stand them in good stead are in for a rude shock. That's what happened when Chitwood went to the Mid-Cities Scrabble Club in Bedford six years ago "looking for some place that would exercise my mind."

Chitwood, a former long-distance trucker, was an avid Scrabbler from childhood. He got his first board at 10 and played with his brother. But playing with girls soon replaced playing with tiles. He says he was a bit cocky when he walked into the Heartland Retirement Center in Bedford for that first time, back in 1989. Chitwood thought he could make a reasonable showing. He didn't even come close.

His first match pitted him against an average club member. Chitwood lost. He kept losing for 27 consecutive games, which still remains as the club's record for losses.

"Right away I enjoyed it," Chitwood recalls. "I wanted to get to know how to get into the mind of the board."

He is now the top player in his own Scrabble group, the Scrabble Club of North Dallas, which meets Tuesday nights at Cafe Brazil in Richardson. Chitwood seems like the prototypical Scrabble geek: He speaks the language of "hooks," "premiums," "bingos," and "leaves." He wears Scrabble T-shirts. He carries a custom-made carryall from Mary Lou Thurman, a retired home-economics teacher from Lubbock who's become the game's Louis Vuitton, sewing together tile bags with custom embroidery and appliques. Chitwood plays Scrabble twice a week with people, and every day against his computer.

He even has a limited edition Franklin Mint Scrabble set--a fine piece of craftsmanship with a cherry-wood board and 18-carat gold-plated tiles. It holds a place of honor in the living room of his Garland home, amid bouquets of fake flowers, but he doesn't play it, because the tiles are like stones. "Digging around in the bag for those tiles would be like digging through rocks," he says. "It will take your nails off." The nearly $500 board was a present to himself, "to let people know exactly what I am into."

In the six years Chitwood has been playing Scrabble in tournaments, he's beaten enough people in NSA-sanctioned play to attain a rating of 1,592. It makes him a high-ranking intermediate, knocking on the door of expert level. His goal, of course, is to make Scrabble National Champion.

It won't be easy. To get to the expert level requires hours of memorization each day, with the goal of knowing the entire Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD). It will also require hours of playing against humans and computers, and hours of learning to pull a word from jumbles of letters. And most of all, it will require the patience and permission of "the Cherokee-Italian munchkin."

"She doesn't like me to spend too much time in Scrabble," Chitwood says of his wife.

Vickie Chitwood, 54, describes herself half-jokingly as a "Scrabble widow." She takes pains to ensure that her new husband doesn't descend too deeply into geekdom. "He loves it. I know that he does," she says. "My family doesn't understand it. I'm not sure I do."

Vickie got an insight into Chitwood's passion for the game on the couple's second date, when he invited her to a Scrabble club meeting at his house. Her two sons couldn't understand why their mother was dating a "Scrabble nerd."

"Mother," one said, "you don't play Scrabble."
"Yeah," said the other. "You're going to be bored out of your mind."
They looked at her in disbelief, wondering what their mother could possibly see in a thrice-divorced man who owned a gold-plated Scrabble set.

It turns out, quite a lot. Today, Vickie attends all of Chitwood's tournaments, though she still doesn't play. The two love to travel, and they've worked out a deal: She shops while he plays Scrabble. While he's absorbed in his matches, she can indulge her own obsession: buying Santa Claus statuettes and holiday trim. The two complement each other, like biscuits and gravy.

They spent their honeymoon, in fact, at a Scrabble tournament. And a good time was had by all.

"When I tell people that the honeymoon was tied to a Scrabble game, people look at me like I'm crazy," Vickie says. "But by the time the Scrabble started, we had done all the things we wanted to do."

Chitwood beams. Scrabble isn't his life, he's quick to point out. He likes to do other things: play golf, read books, umpire girls' softball. "I have a life outside Scrabble," he insists.

That's a mantra to Scrabble players, used to ward off the nerdish stereotypes. (Almost all of the players at the higher levels, incidentally, are men, although men and women are found in equal numbers at the local clubs.) "I want to make sure it is pointed out that we are not all that way," Chris Cree says.

Cree has a life. He loves sports and gambling. But pursuing a life outside of Scrabble won't work for aspiring champions; Cree knows firsthand. During the last few years, his ranking has dropped off. He used to be in the top 10; now he's in the bottom half of the top 100. "I don't study as much," he says. "There are people who study eight hours a day--who are on the Internet all night about nothing but Scrabble--and they have passed me. I'm in the twilight of my career. I'm 41 and I'm finished," he adds, laughing.

His life has revolved increasingly around his 8-year-old daughter, Kendall. But Cree still hoped to make a comeback in nationals in this week's Dallas tournament, which is open to any ranked Scrabble player who has played at least one officially sanctioned Scrabble tournament in the past two years. The entry fee is $75 for experts, $60 for intermediates, and $50 for novices.

Cree started playing Scrabble competitively in 1980 at the Scrabble Club of Dallas, which meets at the Shoney's on Northwest Highway. He threw himself into it, and found he excelled. Today, he possesses the attributes of a champion. He knows all the two- and three-letter words in the OSPD, most of the fours and fives, and a pretty good quotient of the sevens and eights. He can move letters around mentally on the rack. "If I see 'bean soup,' I know I have 'subpoena,'" he says. "'Moonies' is 'noisome.'"

Darrell Day took up Scrabble 15 years ago, after picking up a used copy of The Official Scrabble Player's Handbook. It was Cree, whom Day met through Scrabble tournaments, who convinced him to move from Kansas to Dallas. "He said the economy was booming, there were beautiful women, and good Scrabble," Day says.

Day admits he used to be the "bad boy" of Scrabble, an insufferable loser who would chomp and curse when the tiles didn't fall his way. He knew the tricks, too, like how to play "phoney." The nonword "ceebeam" won him a tournament in Texas a few years ago, he says. Phonies are fake words, and players use them to score points and to test their opponents' knowledge.

Day's Scrabble buddies helped him through a messy divorce. Concentrating on the game kept him sane when things were falling apart, he says.

These days, Day is more relaxed about the game. The ultimate titles--national and world championships, both played in English--have eluded him. He has come close, however, getting as high as fifth in the nation and twelfth in the world. He was tense back then.

Now his divorce is over, a new relationship is settling in, and he's gotten his priorities straight. He spends more time with his children, and he's able to get in a Scrabble groove when he finds time to play.

"Finally, after almost 15 years of playing, I finally feel the rhythm of the game, no matter how it's going," he says. "It's like the Chicago Bulls. They didn't have a lot of talent, but what they had was balance and chemistry."

This Zenlike talk doesn't mean Day has lost his taste for winning. "I'm still a competitive S.O.B.," he says.

It's Tuesday night in the back room of Richardson's Cafe Brazil, and only a few of the 16 regulars of the Scrabble Club of North Dallas have shown up to eat, drink coffee, and play. There isn't much chatter; just the occasional gripe about a suspicious word.

There's Joy Nees, a Dallas real-estate agent, playing Seymour Zweigorom, a retired manager. Nees has a cellular phone stuck to her ear as she plays, setting up meetings and cajoling reluctant buyers while placing tiles. "I don't normally do this," she says in her clipped New Zealand accent. "They usually know not to bother me on Tuesdays."

Usually seven or eight show up, but Chitwood isn't worried by the small showing. Four people means three games of Scrabble apiece. "I'm sure the rest of them are off having a life," he says.

His first partner is LeAnne Baird, a technical writer. She is a round woman--pale, with a cherubic face, brown hair, and glasses. She describes herself as a word lover.

But word lovers are the first to die in serious Scrabble. And Chitwood shows Baird no mercy. He lays down his tiles in a rapid-fire barrage. "Comping" for 28 points. He writes down the word and score, ticks off the letters used on his score sheet, and scoops up new tiles. Baird places "vugs" for 12. Chitwood shoots back with "blitzes," a 97-point scorcher. It leaves Baird in a metaphorical fog. When it settles, Chitwood has 448 points for the game. And Baird? Neither is telling.

Chitwood then goes back and analyzes what he has done. He sees a place where he could have played "squeaky" for a double-word score and lots of points.

For Baird, Scrabble is just a hobby. She cares too much about the meanings of words. She's too literary. The game's dirty secret is that people like Baird will never make it anywhere near the top. Competitive Scrabble discourages knowing words in the usual sense--context, meaning, history. Instead, it encourages players to look at words like commodities, brokered on the board.

"One day, I'm going to see the word 'national' on the board, and I'll be able to play INTER and LY to make 'internationally,'" Day says. "It would be a top-to-bottom triple worth 230 points. Not as much as 'isozymic,' but it has more flair."

As for the search for meanings, Day says, just forget it. "You'll soon get over that," he says. "A few weeks--a month tops--it just won't matter to you.

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